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18 August 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:12am

The rise and fall of digital Corbynism

The British left has the internet tools to generate a lasting movement – if only it knew how to use them

By katrina forrester

The first time I saw protesters dancing on the roof of a police van was at a May Day demonstration in London in 2002. Over the dulcet acid techno beats of a bike-powered sound system, a friend explained that we were imitating the Reclaim the Streets movement of the 1990s – free parties on highways that doubled as tactics of resistance against infrastructure projects in the name of halting ecological and capitalist crisis. I learned then that I had come too late for anything new. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described this era as one of nostalgia (-algia, the suffix, signifies pain, distress). Thanks to the ideology of what Fisher called “capitalist realism”, faith in the future had been cancelled.

I didn’t know it yet, but something did make us different from the leftists that came before us: the internet. (It’s a cliché because it’s true.) In the scene that took shape in the aftermath of the anti-globalisation movement, politics revolved around affinity groups of hippies, punks, ravers, and teenagers preoccupied with squabbles between youth anarchist networks and Trotskyist organisations. These groups focused on direct action: protests against the arms trade and to free Palestine, school walkouts against the Iraq War, squatted camps at G8 summits. Unlike our predecessors, we had Indymedia to learn about protests, and web forums and riseup.net listservs to stay in touch. In 2003 Fisher started his blog K-punk, inspiring a network of radical bloggers. This was not a scene where left theory or history mattered much. Political education meant learning to encrypt emails on action training weekends. The only thing that held the young, fragmented left together was a common enemy: the warmongering Labour Party.

No one had any sense yet that the internet would be so crucial in bringing left politics closer to a mass politics than at any time in recent history. This was the major achievement of the movement that formed around Jeremy Corbyn, which promised a better future through the restoration of the best of the welfare state, achieved with new technologies: “Socialism with an iPad”, as John McDonnell put it. It also promised new forms of organisation and participation where mainstream politics had failed.

[See also: Keir Starmer needs to end Labour’s civil war]

The four-year tenure of Corbyn’s leadership unified the factions of the networked anti-capitalist left, which gave up its historic opposition to the Labour Party and tried to navigate and reform its unwieldy, hostile structures. They filled the ranks of the grass-roots membership (previously small in number and soft left in politics) and found new common interest with Labour’s affiliated trade unions, whose leadership have often been closer to the parliamentary elite than the members, and whose rank and file have had their power within the party eroded over a period of decades. As such, Corbynism is best understood as the name for a period of left unity, at a time of disunity within the larger Labour Party.

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The primary cleavage in British politics over Brexit cut across this temporary unity. Nonetheless, for the duration of Corbyn’s leadership, it held. And it was forged and facilitated, at least in part, by the internet. The left tried to make Labour work as a socialist party, organising and educating its members and the public. Its main efforts, to that end, were digital. Social media and digital communications brought new life to electoral campaigns, mobilisation drives, and democratisation efforts, creating the conditions for a novel political formation – a party-movement born from the encounter of an electoral party with digital horizontalism.

Though the internet played a role in making Corbynism, it also intensified the movement’s challenges. The forms of organisation that could have sustained Corbynism were weakened through their reliance on digital platforms, and the new social forms produced online made Corbynism vulnerable in ways its opponents could easily exploit. In the end, the new left did not establish a movement strong enough to beat the Tories or hold on to the party. What kind of role did the internet play in its defeat?

The networked media that gave the Corbyn movement its shape did not produce the kind of political action necessary to counter the bureaucratic organisation of the party it aimed to inherit. Yet the contradiction of digital Corbynism is one through which the left must pass to find both a media form and a political organisation that can succeed in our era of digital capitalism.

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According to the political scientists Richard S Katz and Peter Mair, the mass membership parties of the mid-20th century were succeeded by the cartel party system. Cartel parties used state resources to maintain power, collude with each other, and squeeze out smaller competitors. The neoliberal politics of the era were low-participation, technocratic and professionalised.

In the early 1980s, a small faction of MPs responded to these trends by founding the Socialist Campaign Group, which tried to keep alive the belief that Labour could be an instrument of socialism, despite its many structural flaws: its parliamentarism, its collaboration with capital and its pursuit of change within the existing order. The group provided support for radical campaigns (Corbyn was a friend to anti-racist movements and a key figure in the anti-war movement; McDonnell, whose constituency includes the area around Heathrow, was the climate movement’s parliamentary point of contact). But few on the anti capitalist left thought the party could be a vehicle of radical social transformation.

That started to change after 2008. With rent prices spiking and underemployment soaring, many anarchists and anti-capitalists became progressives of a more organised kind. A housing movement emerged from the burnout of the climate movement. Anti-austerity dissent produced a generation hungry for wealth and income redistribution and willing to work through the party to get it. Across Europe, new digital parties – most prominently the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain – were using online platforms to replace bureaucracies, reverse membership decline and promote participation. The UK had no left digital party, but the tools of the anarchist internet were starting to be used to promote left politics beyond its oppositional enclaves.

The anti-austerity unrest and student movements of 2010-11 were crucial events in the transformation of the horizontalist British left into one that advocated a Gramscian vision of politics as a “war of position” – the strategic work of creating counter- hegemonic cultural and political institutions. What would become the Corbynist public sphere was built through organisations such as Novara Media. This was a long way from the left media of the 2000s – the playful, underpaid blogs and forums that the political theorist Jodi Dean described as “writing for strangers”. Call it podcasting for hegemony.

Out of these movements emerged Corbynism’s activist base. Instead of drawing its political class from trade unions and professionals, it attracted the professionalised millennial precariat. Given this change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Corbynism’s most visible successes were in media, policy and digital campaigns. As this base entered the Labour Party, it began to function in the spaces that the old cartelised system allowed it, especially the digital gaps that the party bureaucracy had not yet filled. Corbynism would become what the political scientists James Muldoon and Danny Rye have called a party-driven movement: party insiders adopted aspects of movement organising and co-opted existing networks to develop the “movement wing”. It was a left insurgency within a cartel party that was digital not by design but by default.

[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

Social media, the tech writer Ben Tarn-off has argued, can serve as an incubator for left movements. In 2015, when Corbyn represented the left on the ballot for Labour leader, it also worked like a funnel. Networked politics in the early 2010s had provided the conditions for high turnout protests that required little organisation. Now, the network entered the Labour Party. After a summer in which social media facilitated Corbyn’s old-fashioned rally tour of town halls, Labour became the largest mass membership party in Europe.

Over the next two years, a new movement was galvanised, especially during attacks on Corbyn by opponents. In 2016 the leadership challenge from the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party energised Corbyn supporters. By then, the left had mastered the art of memes – the laddish legend of Corbyn as the “Absolute Boy”, decked out in a TV appearance in a James Bond suit and furs, was the classic, with the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” adapted as his anthem. Viral successes were sustained by a growing online media infrastructure, which spread content to users in parts of the UK that the Labour left finds hard to reach and put digital celebrities on primetime TV. Each campaign had a centripetal function, working to keep the left within the Labour Party. When Labour dramatically outperformed expectations in the 2017 election, unity was consolidated.

At its high point, Corbynism’s success looked like a product of the internet. Its cultural producers thrived online, mainstreaming left culture in spaces vacated by the declining centre. Fisher’s cohort of bloggers became movement intellectuals, advocating a techno-optimism that inspired aspects of Labour’s programme in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, including its support for a universal basic income and a four-day working week.

The heart of digital Corbynism was Momentum. Momentum had its origins as a membership list (Labour saw it as a way to capture data) but the organisation quickly supported more ambitious goals. These were contested from the start. Veteran Labour members conceived Momentum as a vehicle to forge a Corbyn-supporting majority, win elections and democratise party structures by establishing open selections. The volunteer wing, by contrast, wanted it to be a social movement – an open membership organisation with a regional structure of in-person groups committed to community organising. By 2017 Momentum’s political culture was set by the volunteers, but organisationally the Labour activists triumphed. The National Steering Committee centralised the organisation, with the goal of mobilising the Labour left to act for and within the party; membership was restricted to Labour members. Instead of a delegate system in which local groups were represented nationally by chosen representatives, participation was facilitated by a digital platform.

Momentum used email directives to prod members to perform specific tasks – to canvass, fill out online consultations, or vote on party ballots. In this way, it succeeded in promoting candidates and establishing a Corbyn supporting majority on the National Executive Committee (NEC), which allowed it to push through changes to the party’s constitution. Momentum’s tech team developed an app to guide voting of members at party conferences. Nationally, Momentum operated best during campaigns: the digital tools My Nearest Marginal and My Campaign Map coordinated canvassing and voter outreach, facilitating digital-driven, bottom-up organising.

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But Labour lost. After 2017, the online left misjudged its declining popularity. Corbynism was no shortcut to power, but its digitally propelled rise made it seem like it might be. Robust digital organisation during campaigns couldn’t compensate for analogue disorganisation. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has argued, the internet allows for organising without organisation. Networked movements can grow rapidly without the prior build-up of collective capacities that prepare them for what comes next. It turned out to be easier to incubate a movement than to win a majority or take over a party.

Corbynism was defeated as much as it failed. The results of the 2019 election told a story familiar to the international left. Britain’s unequal cities remained Labour strongholds, while the party’s longstanding uneasy relations with England’s post-industrial towns were worsened by the politics of Brexit, which split Labour’s traditional constituencies. The Corbyn leadership was unable to handle the Brexit dilemma or unite communities divided by the social consequences of deindustrialisation. Decades of drift could not be remedied in one election cycle.

But Labour’s difficulties under Corbyn were not only electoral. Though the Labour membership had grown to a peak of more than half a million, participation remained low. Joining the party was a digital affair, but so was being active within it. Only 35 per cent of Momentum members took part in internal online elections in April 2018. Its digital model worked well for building relations between leaders and members but was less suited to developing the relations that keep movements going. While it tried to mitigate alienation among supporters through social media engagement, it did so unevenly and often in ways that reinforced divides – particularly generational ones, which in asset economies are both the most difficult and the most necessary to bridge.

Momentum had regional successes in organisation-building, but largely because of pre-existing cultures – such as in Manchester, renowned for its labour, student and anti-capitalist movements. Likewise, local branches that became hubs of left organising were located in places with existing networks and high inequality and deprivation, such as Liverpool or Hackney in east London. In The Digital Party (2019), Paolo Gerbaudo argues that parties rooted in the internet lack the integrative functions of old mass parties; they struggle to provide the forms of civic association that make membership meaningful. In the quasi-digital Labour Party and its adjacent organisations, the key sites of online sociality were local Facebook groups, which connected activists where offline participation was low, but didn’t do much to increase it.

The decision to operate Momentum through a centralised digital decision-making structure with an electoral focus sometimes made it function more like a non-profit foundation than an organising movement. The digital democracy platform My Momentum promised participation, but didn’t much help local groups make an impact on the national agenda. The party’s hierarchies were left largely intact, and the Labour right remained embedded in the bureaucracy. The Corbynist left chipped away at this, often through online voting, but was less successful at getting people to show up in person at meetings to swing decisions, or to stand in council elections.

These tendencies were compounded by Corbyn’s reticence in nurturing the movement he depended on. Despite an initial close alliance, he often did not align with Momentum and didn’t deliver on promises to democratise the party. Instead, he centralised decision-making in his personal team in the leader of the opposition’s office, relying on allies from the Stop the War Coalition and union leadership to diffuse demands from the membership.

Many of Corbynism’s failures were symptoms of the centralisation of power by a leader who struggled to lead – the inability to deal with the party’s right flank or with charges of anti-Semitism. The lack of redistribution of power meant the left lost its hold on the party machinery. As Keir Starmer shifted Labour right, the seats in the NEC were lost, and the Community Organising Unit established under Corbyn was defunded. The networked movement entered the party, but it didn’t reshape its institutions.

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In the post-mortems of the 2019 defeat, it has been common to argue that these limitations were caused in part by the Corbynist left’s insufficient political education efforts. Political education is key to socialist movements – to building a base, changing people’s minds and connecting experiences with histories and theories of struggle. Labour has long had an uncomfortable relationship with this dimension of politics: it advocates impartial public education by governments rather than education for socialism by voluntary organisations or party-affiliated groups. Education was not an aim of cartelised parties, which thought in terms of “public opinion” to be followed, not changed. Under Corbyn, education efforts, whether via new digital media or “The World Transformed” political festival, remained piecemeal. Most of the time, education still meant reciting the party’s platform: policies for a Green New Deal, free broadband and a National Care Service.

What can political education look like under digital capitalism? This is a pressing question for the post-Corbyn left. Richard Seymour’s critique of what he calls “the social industry” casts social media as too hostile an environment in which to do political work, in part because of the hunger for resentment and shame that congeals online. Replicating in a digital landscape the coordination necessary for successful education campaigns isn’t straightforward either.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

One reason is that social media can feel a lot like a school – a space of discipline and hierarchy, with teachers, bullies and cliques, of humiliation but also solidarity. That experience intensifies a prosaic danger faced by any defeated left: the risk of getting stuck in an enclave and becoming a political class seduced by its own self-education, far from the picket lines, schools of struggle and rhythms of class politics. The challenge – augmented by the internet – is to break free of the tendency to see good ideas and policies as substitutes for organisation. Political education is vital, but politics is not education. Social change doesn’t happen by swapping people’s false beliefs for true ones via a better media strategy. It requires the collectivisation of their individual struggles and, often, the reorganisation of their lives.

Corbynism didn’t manage to do that, online or off. The party-movement stimulated and popularised left digital cultures. But, in the time it spent near the levers of power, it didn’t learn how to use digital tools to turn its successful organisational transformations into lasting ones. It was not possible to transcend the contradiction produced by the alliance of the analogue cartelised party and the networked movement.

That doesn’t mean this can’t be achieved. Corbynism also confirmed that many discover the left by digital means. Since then, the crisis conditions of the pandemic have amplified digital organising structures – from Zoom town halls to tenant meet-ups – showing that the education and organisation that are the basis of movement building can be recreated online. There are vestiges of community in these privatised and remote yet still public spaces, which assumed even greater importance as Covid-19 squeezed already unequal and dwindling access to embodied public space.

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The British left no longer has a party, but it may still have the tools for retaking it. Momentum has been rolling out new digital structures as part of a broader strategy to re-engage the left within the party, building from forms of digital resistance ongoing outside it. The hope remains that the internet can still offer something new: a space not just to incubate movements, but where old ones might endure. In his account of the Aids crisis, Douglas Crimp described militancy as emerging from within bereavement: the adage wasn’t “don’t mourn, organise”, but “mourning and militancy”.

We are in our own plague, and the work of mourning – of sustaining a relationship with someone who is no longer there – is no easy feat. Carrying on, without reaping the benefits and satisfactions of victory, may require a discipline and a faith that is hard to sustain online. Can the social industry prove to be not just an incubator or a school, but a vehicle for endurance? The truth is we don’t know. It hasn’t yet been tried. 

Katrina Forrester is assistant professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her book “In the Shadow of Justice” (Harvard) is out in paperback. This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Dissent

This article appears in the 18 August 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal

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This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal